Thursday, June 14, 2018

We take a look at coal-fired arts projects

Coal has been on my mind lately. Not in my mind, but I wouldn't be surprised if our Republican geniuses in Congress plan to replace our precious bodily fluids with coal dust. That should open up a new market for a dying industry.

Coal mining has a long tradition in Wyoming. I don't want to see it disappear. I would like to see some creativity applied to the issue instead of fear-mongering. The state has been home to coal mines since its settlement by white folks. Many families have been sustained by miners hacking rock out of underground mines or scooping it up in strip mines. Many communities owe their existence to coal. Some of our museums celebrate what you could call the coal culture. Rock Springs just added a coal mural to the side of a building in its flourishing downtown.

Coal mural in downtown Rock Springs. Artist is Dan Toro.
Underground Rock Springs is honeycombed with old mines. Mines and miners' unions made this city. It's good to see it acknowledged on a mural, and there is probably more to come. The main building at Western Wyoming College celebrates coal, too, with its large exhibit of the dinosaurs that once roamed the area, Consider dinos pre-coal, before the earth swallowed them up, applied heat and pressure, and then surrendered it to men with picks and shovels. I've always been crazy about dinosaurs and wonder why they are not more celebrated in Wyoming.

For 25 years, I was tasked with helping arts projects get off the ground. I was paid to be creative. I was also paid to fill out a lot of paperwork and read hundreds of grants. It taught me about this state of the arts. Lots of creativity and creative people. You could call them creatives as Richard Florida most famously did. Creatives, however, rarely are seen in the wild and seem to thrive only in urban enclaves, places such as Willaimsburg in Brooklyn and RiNo in Denver. It's a surprise to many coasters when they find pockets of creativity in small places that have no catchy nicknames.

I was pleased to hear a story on Wyoming Public Radio about another very creative person in an out-of-the way place. Mosaic artist Rachel Sager returned to her hometown in western Pennsylvania mining country. She wanted to practice her art and help her town recover from doldrums caused by closing of its mines. So she did what any other creative person would do -- she bought a defunct coal mine and turned it into an arts destination. Actually, she bought a swath of property that also was the site of an abandoned coal operation. She reclaimed the walls of the ruins from decades of vines and weeds and thought that it  would be a great place to show off her mosaics. She also thought it was a great way to show off the work of other like-minded artists from around the world and, in the process, give her tiny town of Whitsett and economic shot in the arm. She called it The Ruins Project. Sager dubs herself "the forager mosaicist" for her love of using found materials in her artwork. She is classically trained in the techniques of andamento, so also teaches classes and invites other visiting artists to do the same. Summer is an especially lively time at The Ruins Project.

Mosaic by Rachel Sager from The Ruins Project

I don't know if Sager has ever visited Wyoming, but she certainly has found some influences there, as shown in the following:

"American Jackelope" by Rachel Sager
Not sure if I have ever seen a mosaic jackelope. I have seen them in the wild, of course, on nights when the full moon shines on the North Platte River Valley.

To bring this story back to Wyoming, I wonder about other coal-inspired projects. Do you know of any? Certainly there are some in Gillette. Hard to imagine creating an arts project out of an abandoned open-pit mine. But who knows? Wyoming artists have been tasked with tough jobs before, such as surviving as an artist. Who knows what brilliant coal-inspired things could happen.

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